As many of us have been reminded by the Church, the season of
Lent is first of all about preparing the catechumens for Baptism (birth into
Christ life) and secondly about the rest of us who are already baptized,
allowing God to “realize” that is make our baptism more real in our daily
lives. Thus the Church constantly selects texts for our instruction
and meditation that invite us more and more fully into the mystery of our
baptism, the mystery (Paul is fond of saying over and over) of the Christ
in each of us and all of us together – our hope of glory.
Today’s Gospel has a “water base” that is not immediately discernable without
the help of good Scripture scholarship. [An aside here for a moment.
It is a wonderful gift that God provides the Church with such devoted servants
as Scripture scholars – of whom I am not one, but in whose debt I constantly
stand to undertake the scholarship I do attempt]. The Feast of Tabernacles
or Booths, which is an autumnal festival in the Jewish calendar, is the setting
for the section of the Gospel of John that today’s passage is drawn from.
The Church has rather sliced and diced the text in the lectionary today,
presumably to make a point, which I will get to, but if we know anything
about John’s Gospel we know that he set Jesus’ actions and teachings within
the contexts of Jewish feasts to provide layers of significant meaning that
is not always evident in first readings of the text. A large section
of John’s Gospel (Chapters 7 – 10) takes place in Jerusalem in the context
of this celebration of the Feast of Booths – just as the Passion and Resurrection
narrative takes place in the context of the Celebration of Passover.
One of the most important aspects of the Feast of Booths is the water imagery
accompanying the feast that is a way of reflecting on God’s Law as fresh
water welling up (analogous to deep water wells or vast aquifers) and transforming
human life and interaction into places of flourishing and fruitful activity.
In this context, Jesus holds something of a debate with some Jerusalemites
who seem to think they know all about him – just as they might think they
know all about God’s law in their lives. But Jesus is a mystery to
them because, ironically, they are closed off to the real meaning and message
of God’s Law , God’s own life made real in tender mercy, and thus are also
closed off to Jesus and his message. The result is that they resemble
the “wicked” of the first reading who are confident that they know how to
test the “truth” of the good person (by torture, it seems) and whether or
not God actually does favor a person. It would seem that their image
of God is one of material force – power in terms of dominance, political
favor and protection – rather than power as subtle as deep water wells springing
up to transform the earth from within, subtly and gently.
One thing today’s reading says loudly and clearly right on the surface is:
don’t judge another’s goodness on your own assessment of truth or effectiveness.
God is much more subtle than we can imagine, and, as various mystics assert:
as soon as you think you know all about God, you REALLY don’t know anything!